Those tasked with writing letters to incoming freshmen frequently wonder if anyone reads them.

John Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, need not worry. His letter to new students has been read and scrutinised not only by Chicago students but by professors and pundits nationwide. “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” he wrote.

To those who regularly campaign against what they see as political correctness, and to plenty of others, the letter was the message they have been waiting for — and that they think students need.

But to many others, the letter distorted programs on which many students rely, ignored the hostility many students feel on campus, and belittled the sincerity of faculty members who work to make higher education more inclusive. Many also said that the letter, by criticising specific academic practices, could be seen as limiting academic freedom by discouraging the use of those practices.

In a twist first reported by The Chicago Tribune, Chicago may not be as pure on safe spaces as the letter suggested. It turns out that the University of Chicago website features references to efforts to create safe spaces for students — and even a Safe Space Ally Network for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. One of the safe space allies is none other than the same John Ellison who wrote to freshmen criticising the safe space concept. Ellison did not respond to messages, and his email has an “out of office” response.

While Ellison hasn’t been talking, Chicago officials are promoting his ideas. Chicago’s president, Robert J. Zimmer, published an essay in The Wall Street Journal Friday reiterating the points Ellison made, and saying that “free speech is at risk” in academe.

“Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments,” he wrote. “Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society.”

Open to Discomfort

The Chicago letter from Ellison similarly argued that part of a good college education is being open to ideas that make one uncomfortable. “You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort,” he wrote.

While many educators are criticising the Chicago letter, two college presidents this weekend urged their students to be open to ideas that make them uncomfortable. Their talks did not attack safe spaces, trigger warnings or the like, but they spoke in a positive way of interacting with ideas that freshmen would find unfamiliar and in some cases counter to their way of thinking.

 

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